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After DNA Exoneration, The Beatrice Six Share False Memories Of Murder


It was the largest DNA exoneration in the history of the U.S. court system. Six people were cleared of the rape and murder of an elderly woman in Beatrice, Neb. JoAnn Taylor was one of the people convicted of the 1985 crime. And still, all these years after her exoneration, she still says she can recall vivid details from the night of the murder. And she's not the only one. New Yorker staff writer Rachel Aviv spoke with some of the so-called Beatrice Six about their false memories and what it tells us about the idea of repressed memory in the justice system. Welcome to the program.

RACHEL AVIV: Thank you.

CORNISH: First, just remind us of the crime itself. The victim was named Helen Wilson. What was the evidence that police in that community used to kick off their investigation? And a warning for listeners - there may be some graphic detail ahead.

AVIV: Helen Wilson was 68. And she, at some time in the middle of the night, was raped and murdered. And the murderer left a lot of physical evidence, which was used to try to find a suspect. Ultimately, none of the physical evidence matched a suspect.

CORNISH: And when we say physical evidence, we're talking about bodily fluid, right?

AVIV: Right.

CORNISH: Especially - there was blood in particular...

AVIV: Blood and semen, right.

CORNISH: So police go looking for a suspect, and they come upon a woman named JoAnn Taylor. How does she get drawn into this?

AVIV: The first confidential informant was a woman who was 17 years old. And she said that JoAnn Taylor and her friend Joseph White had bragged about killing Helen Wilson. So they're arrested. She essentially said, oh, I drank a lot. I don't remember much. And the detectives kept pressing her and kept telling her details about the crime and showing her pictures of the crime. And eventually she essentially trusted their vision of what had happened more than she trusted her own memory.

CORNISH: She started to say, yes, maybe I do remember this after all.

AVIV: Exactly.

CORNISH: And then she leads them essentially to five other people. How does that happen?

AVIV: So through another confidential informant they arrest a woman named Debra Shelden. From there on everyone else is implicated through dreams. So Debra Shelden is told to go back to her cell and to dream in order to recover her memories of what had happened at the crime. And she dreams that a friend of her husband who was named James Dean was at the crime with her. James Dean is then arrested. Eventually he dreams that someone named Kathy Gonzalez was there with him. Immediately after the dream, they arrest Kathy Gonzalez.

CORNISH: And they're not told by just anyone, right? There's a psychologist who's been deputized to work with the police department. His name is Wayne Price. And he's a big believer in this idea of repressed memories. So how did that come into play in this investigation?

AVIV: He seemed to feel very confident that if someone closes their eyes and tries to take a nap or goes to sleep at night or just lets their mind wander they will suddenly come up with memories that had been buried that contained the details that were too traumatic for them to process. And this is a theory that has pretty much been discredited. But he told them this idea and taught them this theory.

CORNISH: And you said it's discredited, but we're going back to the 1980s here. It was quite popular at that time.

AVIV: Very, very popular at the time. That was the era in which people were being told that some of their traumas were due to sexual abuse as children that they may have forgotten. And so there was this movement of therapists at that time who were trying to get people to remember through flashbacks and dreams and what was called memory work the details of their abuse. And it became a kind of epidemic. And once it reached epidemic proportions it was discredited as a theory.

CORNISH: As we said, this crime happened in the '80s. They were exonerated in 2009. Why did you want to write about this now, especially as it's a discredited theory, right?

AVIV: You know, what struck me about the case was that there were two of the six who still struggled to believe that they were innocent. Usually when you look at cases of false confession, the person confesses, but as soon as they're out of the environment of the interrogation they - that belief dissipates and they realize, oh, my God, what did I do? Let me retract my confession. And that's when they get in trouble. But for three of the people in this case, they truly - they didn't just believe that they were guilty. They had very vivid and multisensory memories of having been at that crime. And those memories...

CORNISH: Right. JoAnn Taylor talked about still feeling the pillow that she believed she had used to smother the victim with, even though...

AVIV: Right.

CORNISH: ...That is not the case.

AVIV: Right. And so I was interested in the way that a false memory is not just implanted but actually shapes someone's sense of who they are and what they're capable of and the kind of story they tell themselves about their life.

CORNISH: Rachel Aviv is a staff writer with The New Yorker. Her piece on false memories appears in this week's issue. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

AVIV: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOENIX SONG, "VIA VENETO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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